While Vista’s Windows Explorer provides you with what appears to be a standard Folders pane, just like the previous versions of Windows, the Vista version is actually called the Navigation pane and it consists of two sections — the Folders section and the Favorite Links section. Because the Folders section provides a very familiar interface, a folder tree, chances are good that this is all you use to navigate your hard disk in Vista. That’s unfortunate because you are probably missing out on two of Vista’s most useful file management features — Search Folders and Favorite Links.

In this edition of the Windows Vista Report, I’m going to take a closer look at the features in the new Navigation pane. As I do, I’ll show you how you can use these features to improve efficiency and wean yourself from the folder tree.

This blog post is also available in PDF format as a TechRepublic download.

The folder tree aspect

When you look at Windows Explorer in its default configuration, as shown in Figure A, you’ll notice that the Folders section with its folder tree is the most prominent part of the Navigation pane. However, if you look closer, you’ll see that the Navigation pane is actually separated into two sections, Folders and Favorite Links. The real power of the new Windows Explorer is in the Favorite Links section.

Figure A

The Navigation pane is actually separated into two sections, Folders and Favorite Links.

Favorite Links

To take real advantage of the Navigation pane, you need to close the Folders section. To do so, click the arrow control in the Folders section. When you do, the Folders section essentially is minimized and the Favorite Links section takes over the entire Navigation pane, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

You can essentially minimize the Folders section and display only the Favorite Links section in the Navigation pane.

As you can see, by default, the Favorite Links section of the Navigation pane contains six links. However, you can customize the Navigation pane by adding other links as we’ll see in a moment. To begin with, the first three links — Documents, Pictures, and Music — are simply shortcuts to these common folders. Since these are the folders that contain the files that you most likely need to access on a regular basis, having these links at the top of the Navigation pane will allow you to quickly find what you need without having to drill down through a standard folder tree.

The next link is titled Recently Changed and is designed to show you files from your Documents, Pictures, and Music folders that you have created or modified in the past 30 days. As you can see by its icon, the Recently Changed link is actually a Search Folder.

The next link is titled Searches and is the main container for all the Search Folders, as shown in Figure C. As you probably know, Search Folders are essentially searches that you saved and are designed to make it easy for you to quickly find your files, regardless of where they actually exist on your hard disk. When you open a Search Folder, the operating system instantly runs that saved search and immediately displays up-to-date results.

Figure C

Search is the main container for all the saved Search folders.

As you can see, there are six saved searches in the Searches folder — four for various file types, the main Recently Changed catch-all, and a special saved search, Shared By Me, which shows all files and folders that you have shared.

Just below Searches is a link to the Public folder, which is the folder where you can store files that you want to share with other people on the same computer or network.

Customizing the Navigation pane

To really make the Navigation pane shine, you will need to customize it. As you do, keep in mind that your goal should be to create a navigational tool that contains as many of your most frequently accessed items as possible so that you can reduce your dependence on the folder tree. Of course you’ll still have to use the folder tree sometimes, but the more you can use the features of the Navigation pane, the more efficiently you’ll be able to find what you need.

To begin with, you’ll want to add your saved searches. When you create saved searches, they are automatically added to the Searches folder, but you can use drag-and-drop to move them directly to the Favorite Links section.

For example, I have written lots of articles about scripts in VBScript and often need to reference them, so I type VBScript in the Start Search box and then click Search Everywhere, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D

Use the Start Search box to launch your search operation.

When the Search Results appear, I then click the Save Search button, as shown in Figure E, and save the search in the Searches folder. When the saved search shows up on the Searches folder, I then use the right-click, drag-and-drop action to move the VBScript saved search to the Favorite Links folder.

Figure E

When the Search Results appear, click the Save Search button.

Now, I can click the VBScript saved search and immediately locate all my files and information about VBScript, as shown in Figure F.

Figure F

You can add custom saved searches to the Favorite Links section of the Navigation pane.

You can also customize the Navigation pane by adding links to a specific folder. For example, as I write each week’s Windows Vista Report for the month of September, I access the C:\Users\Greg\Documents\TechRepublic\Articles\2008\9) September 08 folder. So rather than having to drill down through the folder tree, I can create a shortcut, via drag-and-drop, and add it to the Favorite Links section of the Navigation pane, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G

You can add your own links to the Favorite Links section of the Navigation pane.

What’s your take?

Are you dependent on the folder tree? What do you think about using the Favorite Links section of the Navigation pane as a replacement for the folder tree? As always, if you have comments or information to share about this technique, please take a moment to drop by the Discussion area and let us hear from you.